Just Above My Head – James Baldwin

JAMH(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings about the author and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This is a very atmospheric novel. One can hear the singing and sighing of the Black Pentecostal church, can sell the toilet, taste the kind of food someone has eaten and which infuses their sperm, can feel the wet hair from the rain, which is harder for black people to dry because of their ‘natty’ hair.

The King James Bible is never far from people’s memories: “pressed down, and running over.”  Nor are the spirituals – source of consolation and empowerment.

Eldridge Cleaver said that Baldwin’s fiction is finally “void of a political, economic, or even a social reference.”  Maybe this novel is Baldwin’s attempt to answer such criticism. People’s stories are told against the background of the civil rights movement. We see the human cost of a murder, the devastation caused by death and bereavement of whole families. Frustrating events like taxi drivers not giving rides to black people and big events like the Ku Klux Klan and racist police mar everyday life and explain the ‘chip on your shoulder’ which many black people are accused of having.

Sexual acts are very graphic, though some are dark and some innocent. The father who ‘uses’ his thirteen-year-old daughter for sex after his wife has died explains that it is normal and that all girls want their daddies.

The teenage boy’s first sexual experience is told in such a way that we feel his emotions and his fear that, in oral sex, his partner might bite off his member.

There is a good description of a man’s feelings about casual sex versus sex within a loving relationship: “And I had fucked everything I could get my hands on overseas, including two of my drinking buddies. I had been revolted—but this was after, not before, the act. Before the act, when I realized from their eyes what was happening, I had adored being the adored male, and stretched out on it, all boyish muscle and throbbing cock, telling myself, What the hell, it beats jerking off. And I had loved it—the adora­tion, the warm mouth, the tight ass, the fact that nothing at all was demanded of me except that I shoot my load, which I was very, very happy to do. And I was revolted when it was over, not merely because it really was not for me, but because I had used somebody merely as a receptacle and had allowed myself to be used merely as a thing. I was revolted that my need had driven me, as I considered it, so low: nevertheless, my need had driven me and could drive me there again. And what did a woman feel? I had never asked myself this question before. Women like it as much as men, okay, and a stiff prick has no conscience, okay again, but that merely justifies a grim indolence. I could spend my whole life in that posture and be found standing at this jukebox when Gabriel’s trumpet sounded, at an angle to the music and at an angle to my life.

“So then, for the first time, I wondered about love and wondered if I would find in myself the strength to give love, and to take it: to accept my nakedness as sacred, and to hold sacred the nakedness of another. For, without love, pleasure withers quickly, becomes a foul taste on the palate, and pleasure’s inventions are soon exhausted. There must be a soul within the body you are holding, a soul which you are striving to meet, a soul which is striving to meet yours.

“Then I suspected why death was so terrible, and love so feared—glimpsed an abyss and closed my eyes and shud­dered: but I had seen it.”

I was particularly interested in his musings upon the role of memory:

“I wonder, more and more, about what we call memory. The burden—the role—of memory is to clarify the event, to make it useful, even, to make it bearable. But memory is, also, what the imagination makes, or has made, of the event, and, the more dreadful the event, the more likely it is that the memory will distort, or efface it. It is, thus, perfectly pos­sible—indeed, it is common—to act on the genuine results of the event, at the same time that the memory manufactures quite another one, an event totally unrelated to the visible and uncontrollable effects in one’s life. This may be why we appear to learn absolutely nothing from experience, or may, in other words, account for our incoherence: memory does not require that we reconstitute the event, but that we justify it.

“This cannot be done by memory, but by looking toward tomorrow, and so, to undo the horror, we repeat it.”

“If one wishes to be instructed–not that anyone does–concerning the treacherous role that memory plays in a human life, consider how relentlessly the water of memory refuses to break, how it impedes that journey into the air of time. Time: the whisper beneath that word is death. With this unanswerable weight hanging heavier and heavier over one’s head, the vision becomes cloudy, nothing is what it seems…
How then, can I trust my memory concerning that particular Sunday afternoon?…Beneath the face of anyone you ever loved for true–anyone you love, you will always love, love is not at the mercy of time and it does not recognize death, they are strangers to each other–beneath the face of the beloved, however ancient, ruined, and scarred, is the face of the baby your love once was, and will always be, for you. Love serves, then, if memory doesn’t, and passion, apart from its tense relation to agony, labors beneath the shadow of death. Passion is terrifying, it can rock you, change you, bring your head under, as when a wind rises from the bottom of the sea, and you’re out there in the craft of your mortality, alone.”

Also interesting was the musing upon the self-knowledge required of a writer: YOU have sensed my fatigue and my panic, certainly, if you have followed me until now, and you can guess how terrified I am to be approaching the end of my story. It was not meant to be my story, though it is far more my story than I would have thought, or might have wished. I have wondered, more than once, why I started it, but—I know why. It is a love song to my brother. It is an attempt to face both love and death.

I have been very frightened, for: I have had to try to strip myself naked. One does not like what one sees then, and one is afraid of what others will see: and do. To challenge one’s deepest, most nameless fears, is, also, to challenge the heavens. It is to drag yourself, and everyone and everything and everyone you love, to the attention of the fiercest of the gods: who may not forgive your impertinence, who may not spare you. All that I can offer in extenuation of my boldness is my love.

I cannot say that every page completely absorbed me but many pages did.

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